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Courtney Upshaw a fan of defense, so he doesn’t watch the Patriots

02.25.12 at 4:59 pm ET
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INDIANAPOLIS — One of the highlights of Saturday’s player availability at the scouting combine came from Alabama pass-rusher Courtney Upshaw.

Given that he played in Nick Saban‘s system, Upshaw, who is undersized (6-foot-1, 272 pounds) but good at getting after the quarterback, seemed like a potential fit.

That’s why it came as no surprise that the Boston Herald asked about the Pats during Upshaw’s availability. The question was about whether he sees similarities between the system he plays and the Pats’ defense that he sees when he watches them on TV.

“Honestly, I’m a Colts fan, so I particularly try to watch the Colts all the time,” Upshaw explained. “Watching the championship game, I’m also a big defensive fan, so I kind of paid more attention to the Giants because I know [Justin] Tuck and my friend [receiver] Jerrel Jernigan played for them. I was really focusing on the Giants. I really haven’t caught too many Patriots games, to be honest with you.”

Obviously, Upshaw didn’t mean to slight the Patriots, but it doesn’t get anymore comically bad than that. Remember, these players are coached to handle these interviews well.

Read More: 2012 NFL Draft, Courtney Upshaw, NFL Combine,

Bill Belichick going to hit the links again

02.25.12 at 4:48 pm ET
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INDIANAPOLIS — Less than a month after his third-place finish in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is going to hit the links again. According to ESPN760, Belichick has committed to playing the Honda Classic Kenny G Pro-Am this coming week in Florida. Belichick and pro partner Ricky Barnes shot a net 16-under par in four rounds at Pebble Beach earlier this month.

Read More: Bill Belichick, Kenny G, Ricky Barnes,

Mike Smith: Ex-Patriots safety James Sanders was a ‘stabilizing presence’ in our secondary this year

02.25.12 at 4:19 pm ET
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INDIANAPOLIS — Prior to the start of the season, the Patriots underwent a sizable overhaul of their secondary with a series of moves which included the Aug. 29 release of veteran safety James Sanders. Sanders was quickly picked up by the Falcons and finished the season with 41 tackles (30 solo) for Atlanta, which ended up finishing 10-6 and making the postseason.

On Saturday at the NFL scouting combine, Falcons coach Mike Smith fairly gushed about Sanders and the stabilizing presence in the Atlanta secondary.

“He was a very good addition,” Smith said of the 28-year-old Sanders, one of the Falcons 17 free agents. “[He was] a solid addition for our secondary with his experience, even though he was a young player — I think he’€™s in his late 20s. We got him late. He was a guy that joined our football team right before the season started. There was an acclimation period, but when he got a chance to play he performed well. He was a stabilizing factor in our secondary. I really like his makeup and his skill set as a guy that can play both strong and free safety.”

Read More: 2012 combine, James Sanders, Mike Smith,

Will Patriots draft the next Jason Pierre-Paul this year?

02.25.12 at 2:39 pm ET
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INDIANAPOLIS — Before the Super Bowl, we took a look at why the Pats haven’t landed a guy like Jason Pierre-Paul in the draft. This year, they’ll have a chance.

There was once a time when college pass-rushers with only one dominant season were called “one-year wonders.” That was a red flag for NFL teams. Thanks to the last two drafts, defensive ends and outside linebackers with only one big year — take Illinois pass-rusher Whitney Mercilus, for example — don’t need to be referred to as one-year-wonders. Now, they can be called the next JPP, or the next Aldon Smith, two players who had only one good season of college production but became star pass-rushers in the NFL.

Mercilus, who measured in at 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds at the scouting combine, had just one sack as a freshman. As a sophomore, he repeated the total — one sack.

Then, 2011 happened. Mercilus went from little production to 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He declared for the draft after the big year, and though the NFL advisory committee gave him a third-round grade, he figures to be drafted anywhere from the late first round to the second round.

“I just was able to put everything together,” Mercilus said of his breakout season. “I was still learning the game as a rusher as a sophomore and redshirt freshman. Last year, I started studying myself more, seeing what I did best and just put it all together for the 2011 season. I broke out that season.”

Now, there are the aforementioned two ways of looking at Mercilus’ situation. He takes one-year wonder as an insult. The way he sees it, last year was just the first year of his dominance.

“I think it’s a negative label, because once you have it, you have it,” Mercilus said of his ability. “Once you’re able to produce like that and you put it all together, in your mind you know you’re able to repeat that success.”

Then there’s the idea that he’s the next JPP. Pierre-Paul had played only one season of FBS ball at South Florida (with only seven starts), but he showed in that season that he was a special type of player with his ability to get after the quarterback.

‘€œPeople say I’€™m raw,’€ Pierre-Paul said at the 2010 combine. ‘€œI just say I’€™m God-gifted.’€

Indeed, people did say Pierre-Paul was raw, just like they’re saying Mercilus is raw now. Mercilus isn’t quite as athletic as Pierre-Paul, who had played two years of junior college before transferring to South Florida, but he does identify with being a premier pass-rusher who’s doubted for his lack of sustained college success.

In the case of Pierre-Paul, all of that doubt ended when he was selected 15th overall by the Giants, became an All-Pro with 16.5 sacks in his second season and won the Super Bowl.

“Hey, he’s in the NFL. If I can get compared to somebody who’s on the Giants like that right now, I’m thankful for that,” Mercilus said of Pierre-Paul. “I’m just trying to upgrade my game and do things correctly, improve my pass-rush technique, be able to play the run a little bit better and just do things like that and just be a solid player overall.”

With both Pierre-Paul and Smith, the latter of whom had a standout freshman season at Missouri (11.5 sacks) but did little as a sophomore before declaring, it seemed the star pass-rushers would be out of reach given where the Pats were selecting. Given that the Pats have two first-round picks (Nos. 27 and 31) and two more in the second round, they’ll be able to get Mercilus if they want him.

This could be the year that the Patriots finally answer the question of whether they’d roll the dice with a high-risk, high-reward pass-rusher. Given the success of Pierre and Smith (14 sacks as a rookie this past year after being drafted seventh overall by the 49ers), it might be worth it.

Read More: 2012 combine, 2012 NFL Draft, Aldon Smith, Jason Pierre-Paul

Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox: A perfect fit for the Patriots?

02.25.12 at 1:46 pm ET
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INDIANAPOLIS — Full disclosure: Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is making a serious push to be this year’s draft binky.

Joining the likes of Connor Barwin, Rob Gronkowski and Ricky Sapp of years past, Cox appears to be both a fit for the Patriots where they are picking, as well as a potential star.

A versatile prospect, Cox can play multiple positions on the line, which is just what the Pats like. He played the three-technique as a d-tackle in the 4-3 in college, but he shows promise as a five-technique (3-4 defensive end) at the next level. The Patriots like to use both, so Cox can stay on the field the whole time, regardless of which defense the Pats are running. He’s also relentless, with a motor that never seems to burn out.

“It’s just there,” Cox, who had five sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss as a junior last season, said Saturday. “I just love playing the game. Getting to enjoy what you love to do every day, going out to practice and having fun.”

Cox also has a connection to one current Patriot, and it shows the Pats have a history with Mississippi State D-linemen. Defensive tackle Kyle Love, who went undrafted in 2010 but was signed by the Pats, was a senior when Cox was a freshman. The two have stayed in touch since their playing days.

“Actually, I just got done texting Kyle,” Cox said. “We were just talking about it. He asked me when my workout was and I told him Monday, so he said he would be watching and wished me good luck.”

Added Cox: “Playing with Kyle was fun. I was a freshman and he was a senior. He showed me a lot of stuff. He showed me the ropes and told me once he left, that I was the next thing coming through and to keep working hard and never give up.”

Cox measured in at 6-foot-4 and 298 pounds. He has the size, skill set (he’s a good pass-rusher but admitted he’d like to improve in the area) and the athleticism (he ran in the 4 x 100 relay in high school) to make him a solid option for the Patriots when they pick at No. 27 or 31. He received an early second-round grade at the end of his season when he submitted his name to the NFL draft advisory committee, but he figures to go higher.

If he were to go to the Patriots, he would be reunited with Love. From what he’s heard, it’s a defense he wouldn’t mind joining.

“I think they do a real good job,” Cox said of the Pats. “I’ve talked to Kyle and he said they do more of a read technique, but they do have ‘rabbits’ [pass-rushers] on third down, where they put the pass-rusher in the game and get after the quarterback.”

Read More: 2012 combine, Connor Barwin, Fletcher Cox, Ricky Sapp

In battle of the backup QBs, both Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett find some support

02.25.12 at 1:32 pm ET
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INDIANAPOLIS — One of the most intriguing offseason spots for the Patriots is at backup quarterback, where No. 2 signal caller Brian Hoyer is a restricted free agent and third-stringer Ryan Mallett is an intriguing prospect who, by all reports, had a good rookie year in New England.

No one is sure how the offseason is going to play out, but each one of the backups got some support from former college teammates this week at the NFL scouting combine. Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins backed up Hoyer in 2008, and remains close to the Patriots’€™ backup. He isn’€™t surprised that Hoyer has managed to stick with New England for three years.

‘€œAlthough he went undrafted, it wasn’€™t a surprise to anyone at Michigan State that he had a successful tenure in the NFL so far with the Patriots because of the arm strength,’€ Cousins said of Hoyer. ‘€œHe’€™s a student of the game. He has a strong work ethic. Having played in the Big Ten, you’€™re used to a lot of the things that accompany an NFL quarterback.

‘€œIt’€™s a good indicator to the Michigan State program as a whole that we’€™re doing things the right way and able to produce players who are having success on Sundays.’€

Cousins alluded to the long-running feud between Hoyer, who still bleeds green for Michigan State, and Brady, who is fiercely loyal to Michigan, one that ratchets up every year when the Spartans meet the Wolverines.

‘€œI hear about it. I’€™ll text Brian every now and then,’€ Cousins said. ‘€œHe’€™ll text me: ‘€˜Hey, make sure you beat Michigan this week because I’€™ve got a bet going with Tom.’€™’€
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Read More: 2012 combine, Brian Hoyer, Joe Adams, Kirk Cousins

Could Bruce Irvin’s remarkable story take him to New England?

02.25.12 at 12:20 pm ET
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INDIANAPOLIS — At the NFL scouting combine on Saturday morning, West Virginia pass-rusher Bruce Irvin went to Podium C at Lucas Oil Stadium before a hand full of reporters and stated the obvious.

“I have a different story than a lot of these guys,” Irvin said.

Indeed he does. Unlike many of the other prospects trying to prove their worth to NFL teams, Irvin has been through two different lives. He used to be B.J. Irvin, a dangerous youth from Atlanta who dropped out of high school in the 11th grade and did jail time. He ran with the wrong crowd, had friends who were in gangs. He’s come a long way since being B.J., and when NFL teams ask him about B.J., he introduces them to Bruce.

“They’ve heard the story,” Irvin said. “They’ve read the articles, so they’re questioning me, which I don’t blame. I guess they kind of want to hear it from the horses’ mouth, the whole situation and how it happened.”

B.J. played only one year of high school football, as a wide receiver, but it wasn’t long before he was academically ineligible.

After dropping out and spending a few weeks in jail for two different charges, he got his GED and went to prep school. It was there that he met his mentor, Chad Allen. According to Irvin, Allen saved his life when his life clearly needed saving.

“He would come up there and just talk to the players and the kids and let them know, give them real-life experiences,” Irvin said. “I was homeless and he talked to me. We had a heart-to-heart and he was like, ‘I can’t let you go back to doing what you were doing.’ He opened his door to his house for me.”

Next for Irvin was junior college, and he wanted to get as far away from Atlanta as possible. He tried walking on at Butler Community College in Kansas, but he didn’t make the team. He finally landed in California, where he played at Mt. San Antonio.

It was there that he made the made the team as a safety, or so he though. He was unproductive as a defensive back, not understanding the position well enough to make an impact.

“Being that I only played one year of high school football, I was kind of slow to the game,” he said. “Picking up the coverages and all the extra stuff that it takes to be a free safety, it was just taking me a long time to grasp it and get the concept of it. One day at practice after like the sixth game — I was only playing kickoff and I was a gunner on team — after the sixth game, the coach was like, ‘Man, we’ve got to get you on the field some way.’ At practice he put me at D-end, and I just started running by people. Ever since then, I’ve just kept my hand in the dirt.”

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Read More: 2012 combine, 2012 NFL Draft, Bruce Irvin, Mark Anderson
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